Australia risks accusations of rejecting a central feature of the liberal democratic ideals that Prime Minister Morrison eagerly embraced in June at the Perth USAsia Centre. Open government was the first of the themes he advocated, saying:

Supporting open societies, open economies and our rules-based order … Our belief that open, pluralistic societies provide the fundamental freedoms and rich opportunities our citizens need to reach their full potential.
(and)
That democratic elections, the rule of law, freedom of thought and expression, independent judiciaries and accountable governments deserve our allegiance based on their intrinsic merit and on their capacity to deliver better lives for our people.

These words reflect the commitments to open government made by Australia when it joined the Open Government Partnership – an association of almost 80 liberal democracies. Each member country declares its commitment to:
• Increase the availability of information about governmental activities;
• Support civic participation;
• Implement the highest standards of professional integrity throughout our administrations; and
• Increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability.

Ambitious and transformative open government reforms focused on these commitments are supposed to be developed, published, implemented and monitored as two-year National Action Plans. Development of commitments and monitoring of implementation by Government is through the Open Government Forum, which has nine federal public servants representing Government and nine civil society members. The Action Plan goes to Cabinet to be signed-off for submission to the international OGP Secretariat. Australia’s third National Action Plan (NAP3) was completed for sign-off last November but is not yet submitted.

Member countries accept an Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) which reviews and reports publicly on success or otherwise in fulfilling the commitments made as a condition of membership. IRM is itself overseen by the International Experts Panel (IEP), further assuring the integrity of OGP.

The IRM report for 2018-2020 was posted a week ago (14th September). The Report exposes the low level of commitment to open government and ambitious and transformative reform, also revealed by a cursory review of Forum agendas, minutes, and details of the eight NAP2 commitments. The proposed NAP3 commitments are also available online on the Forum website.

Integrity in government procurement illustrates the issue. It is one of the most significant and revealing commitments dealt with by the Forum through commitments in both the first and second national action plans.

Transparency International has “found that corruption can add as much as 50 percent to a project’s costs (and) … isn’t just about money. It also reduces the quality of work or services.” Anti-corruption bodies in Australian states have confirmed that corrupt procurement does occur in Australia. Alleged corruption by the French submarine builder then negotiating a contract with our government made it especially relevant. This was the context in which NAP1 (2016-18) included Commitment 4.3 – Open Contracting.

Commitment 4.3 was to review Australia’s compliance with the international Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS), publish and receive public comment on the review, and then implement agreed measures to improve compliance.

This carried over to NAP2 Commitment 8 that required due diligence, involving publishing the outcome of the NAP1 review. This has not occurred and so after now almost 5 years, it is incomplete. No substantive or detailed explanation has been provided to the Forum. The outcome of the review cannot be seen as “publishing”.

There is no evidence provided to the Forum of a review of the use and value of the OCDS dataset. Clear feedback on the process has been expected from the Government, through the Forum member believed to have responsibility. It has not been received. One can only speculate why Government would not trumpet compliance with this major, international corruption-prevention standard.

One of the greatest risks to public finances remains corruption in procurement contracting. Yet the Commitment remains incomplete in the absence of evidence of implementation.

The opportunity to complete the compliance with the international open contracting standard remains open and should be seized to protect public finances, the national interest, and the liberal democratic values of which the Prime Minister spoke so recently.
The IRM Report reveals that of the eight NAP2 commitments, only two have been completed and even one of those (engage Australians in the independent review of the APS) was initiated independently of the OGP process. Three are described as substantially complete. Surprisingly, open contracting is included!

“Limited” describes the little or slow progress on the remaining three – place-based approaches, political campaign funding reform, and anti-corruption framework. The Forum was by-passed on design of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

Proposed NAP3 commitments are even less ambitious or transformative. In particular, there was strong push-back from Government to political campaign finance reform which would have dramatically reduced the corrupting potential of donations, by putting a cap on campaign spending – a tried and proven model in NSW State elections.

These illustrations of Australia’s torpid record as an OGP member reveal much potential for ambitious and transformative reform in defending, practicing, and advancing liberal democratic values domestically, matching or bettering global peers!

First published in The Mandarin 27 Sept